You May Safely Ignore The Voice Inside Your Head
That voice inside your head. The one you’re probably listening to right now, as you read this. The one that’s always there, providing the voice-over to the narrative we all live. The one that seems so us, so much of who we think we are. The one that tells you what’s going on with other people and the one that tells you what’s going on with you (or so it seems).
Here’s the thing about that voice: it lies.
A lot of the time. About anything it wants. Not all the time — then we could just discount it — but enough of the time that it can really mess with us. At times it’s smart, insightful, funny, clever, compassionate, a lot of things that we think we are. So we listen.
But…that’s the voice that also whispers to us about our worthlessness, stupidity, ugliness, whatever. So we listen.
But that, especially, is when it’s lying. That’s the most dangerous time to listen.
So, a uniquely human conundrum; how to know when to trust our inner voice, when it frequently lies? That voice that seems like us…it lies? What? How can that be? How come I don’t know? (which leads us to the question of which “I” are we talking about, but…that’s for a later time).
Name that voice
That voice has a name; ego. It’s our ego, our sense of self, our sense of being a unique individual, separate from all the other unique individuals, existing through time (e.g. we all have histories and can plan futures), having an individual life narrative built from our own unique experiences and sensations and thinking and feelings.
Clearly, it holds a very important place in our selves, in our sense of self, and that (mostly) jibes with our inner experiences. It’s that voice that raises alarms (good or bad), narrates life, and seems to be our inner most self.
And, in a very real sense, that just might be true. The final science is definitely not yet in, and, it looks like the cingulate cortex, specifically, the prefrontal cingulate cortex (PCC) is the seat of the self.
It’s that little sucker, right there.
And, as you can see, it really does have a central place in our brains. So let’s look at that for a moment. The cingulate cortex sits smack dab between the two parts of the brain that Daniel Kahnman identifies in his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow: the fast, old part, and the slow, new part which is where our higher thinking is done.
The old part is fast; way faster than most of the rest of the brain (by around 10,000X).
The new part is smarter, but way slower, and we can verify this through our internal experience. How many times (each day) do your emotions swamp you, only to be corrected later when you’ve had some time to think about things?
The PCC turns out to be one of the few bits of our brains that is extensively wired to both parts. That alone makes it important. From what we know now using fMRIs and the latest neurological tools, from an evolutionary perspective, and something we can each verify by our own inner experiences; we have a fast part, we have a slow part, and that little voice somewhere in between.
Once I learned this was happening, that this is the process my brain is constantly doing, it became a lot easier to sort of see it in action, from an observer’s perspective (please don’t ask “who is the observer?” as that is the puzzle that is confounding me at the moment). For me it means that voice’s whisper became just that; like someone whispering in my ear. Not something I need to believe, feel, or even listen to.
The slow brain
The slow-smart part is one of the newest parts of the brain and it is where we do our higher thinking. Abstract thought, analysis, synthesis, executive functions (like figuring out what to do next) are mostly handled there. It sits way up front, right there.
Looking at the brain from an evolutionary perspective, it’s the last part to have developed. And, again, we can look to our own human experience to see that that’s true; in the millions of years of evolution, it’s only in the past few thousand that human beings were anything close to what one would call intelligent (and to all of you saying, “Who’s to say we are now?” Yes, alright, sit down). And, consistent with that, it’s way up front on the outside of our brain.
The fast brain
Now let’s look at the fast part; way down deep, along with some of the other oldest parts.
It’s the amygdala, in the limbic system, and we’ve had one since we were something that looked and acted a lot like a lizard. And, in fact, it’s called “the lizard brain” by a whole lot of brain people.
Survival is its only job.
Scan-react-scan-react in an ultra-fast unending cycle, because that’s what kept more of us alive. And it’s still doing that today. Inside every one of us. Right now. Scanning for threats and creating emotions (or not) in response.
And, just as a quick aside, for those of us who consider ourselves rational, this is where most of our decision making actually happens. That’s right; decisions are mostly made by the unconscious, emotional part of our brains. Our prefrontal cortex — the actually smart part — mostly does what we appropriately call “rationalization.” Sorry…for all of us who consider ourselves truly rational? Not so much…
The ego trio
Tying this all together, we’ve got a system that goes like this: the zippy limbic system spots a (possible) threat and immediately reacts by triggering all those lovely fight or flight hormones, and by sending major alarm signals to the cingulate cortex (our sense of self lives there, remember) which sends it own signals to the prefrontal cortex where the whole thing can finally be evaluated (and, probably does other things, too, we’re just not quite sure yet).
Until the last step, everything is completely automatic and out of our control.
From an evolutionary perspective again, this makes a lot of sense.
When we were lizard-like, survival depended on speed, not analysis. So the ones who were faster lived and bred more and…Darwin.
Natural selection made us something less lizard-like. It caused more of the slightly slower but smarter ones to survive and breed. In an intricate, magical dance, the environment and our genetics interacted to cause the beings that became us to grow more brain. Intelligence became a factor in our survival and the race to bigger brains was on.
But, just being smarter wasn’t enough; survival still required speed. From the evidence we have (which is that we survived), a great way to make a being smarter and faster is to give them a self, an ego. An awareness that death is the end of something near and dear to us; ourselves*.
It makes total sense. If you understand that you’re separate from everything else (that’s only the ego’s truth, by the way) and that your unique self ends at death, you’re going to fight like hell to…survive.
It worked so well that we danced our way all the way to a massive fore-brain that had language, math, art, abstract thought, and a self-awareness of our complex internal emotional lives.
Our brains today
And so, here we are today with a limbic system that is highly tuned to react to any perceived threat way before we are consciously aware of it; a PCC that is terrified of dying and that we all think of as ourselves; and a smart bit that is so slow that the fast bits can overwhelm it like zombie hoards.
That’s why that little voice lies; it’s trying to survive. And when we’re in survival mode, anything goes. It’s so wired into our prefrontal cortex (our smart bit), that we are just barely figuring out all that it does.
But, I think we can all agree; it sure does something.
And what to do with that?
Maybe nothing. But, just as closing thoughts, perhaps here is something to do with this.
Those of us who meditate (or have ever tried meditating), are well aware of the monkey mind. The latest evidence is pointing to that the PCC is it.
Many long time meditators (myself included) experience a quieting of the ego over time. Perhaps, what the ego needs to quiet down is the love and attention that meditation gives it.
Recent advances in medicine have revealed that even small bits of exercise help improve health. The meditation muscle is just like that. So, try it. To quiet that inner voice, just listen. Just accept. You don’t have to believe, just accept, meaning that you just accept it’s point of view, as if you were a friend it was telling about a problem in its marriage.
For ten seconds or whatever you can handle (it might be harder than it sounds). Then see if the volume hasn’t gone from 11 to 10.8. If it has, cool! You now know you can “turn yourself down” whenever you need to.
If it hasn’t, and you want it to, keep trying. It’s a muscle that gets stronger over time.
Then, the next thought you have, take some time to ponder it. Chew on it. See if it’s true. Pay attention for a while, on and off during a day. You’ll be amazed at how much pops into your head that isn’t true.
I know I was.
* Nature may have tried lots of other ways to do this, too. This is the one that worked, at least so far.
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